Could any film fan be disappointed by a horror film that features performances from Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, AND Burgess Meredith? The answer is no, which means that you should already have seen Burnt Offerings by now. Having said that, I have never loved this movie quite as much as other people seem to. It’s perfectly fine, mainly thanks to the casting and the recurring appearance of a spooky chauffeur, but it never really becomes as good as it could be.
The basic plot sees a family offered a summer rental home at a bargain price. The only catch is that they have to look after an elderly family member who lives in a top room in the house. The old lady never leaves her room, so it’s just a case of taking meals up for her and making sure that she is okay. There is, of course, another catch, but it’s one that the family are not made aware of. There’s something about the house that might change them all forever, an evil force that starts to change them and turn them against one another.
Based on the novel by Robert Marasco, this film feels very much like a cross between the “mortgage horror” (a term I first saw used in Kim Newman’s excellent Nightmare Movies, although I can’t recall if he credited someone else with the origin of it) of The Amityville Horror and the stranger supernatural events of Kubrick’s take on The Shining, although it has to be noted that this movie came along before both of those.
Director Dan Curtis spent many, many years working on Dark Shadows (essentially a soap opera with the main characters being vampires, witches, etc) and seems more than qualified to oversee this tale of some inexplicable evil force residing in a distinctly average modern home. Having worked on the script with William F. Nolan, the film feels like a reversal of his famous TV show. Where that had horror tropes being played out in everyday life, Burnt Offerings instead offers the tropes of everyday life being played out in a horror vessel. With the main protagonists blissfully ignorant until things start getting more and more intense.
Black and Reed are as good as you’d expect them to be, playing a married couple who can’t believe their good luck, and then start to disbelieve their bad luck. Lee Montgomery does a decent job, playing their young son, and Davis is very enjoyable as the elderly aunt making up the central family unit. Burgess Meredith may not have that much screentime, and nor does Eileen Heckart, but there’s certainly value added to the movie by having him in it. Anthony James also deserves a mention, superbly creepy as The Chauffeur.
Competent, if predictable, creepy, and impressively reticent about providing any solid motivation for the events being depicted, Burnt Offerings is certainly worth checking off your list, if you haven’t already.
DIRECTOR: DAN CURTIS
WRITER: DAN CURTIS, WILLIAM F. NOLAN (BASED ON THE NOVEL BY ROBERT MARASCO)
STARS: KAREN BLACK, OLIVER REED, BETTE DAVIS, LEE MONTGOMERY, EILEEN HECKART, BURGESS MEREDITH
RUNTIME: 116 MINS APPROX
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